May. 27, 2020
Michelle La (’11), a Biola University biochemistry alumna, plays Margot Kim, the protagonist in the recently released film, Searching — a thriller tracing the story of a teenager who goes missing. The movie is creatively told through different technological devices, such as computers and phones. Searching won the Audience Award: NEXT at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.
Majoring in biochemistry, La was en route to medical school when an internship prompted her to rethink her career path. After interning in a local emergency room, shadowing a doctor, she realized the lifestyle wasn’t ideal for her. Sparked by her love for biochemistry and her senior thesis on water, La pursued and landed a job analyzing wastewater for the government. Realizing that it left little room for upward mobility, La thought through her future and began to reconsider her vocation. One week into her marriage, to the surprise of her husband, she expressed a serious interest in acting.
In La’s interview with Biola, she shares about her role, the movie’s cultural impact and her shift to acting.
How did the transition occur where you then began to pursue acting?
I bought a Groupon for an acting class. True story, and that’s how my transition started. I took acting classes for a year, every single week, while working full time at the lab still … My passion, my knowledge, my interest just kept growing, and I realized, “This is what I want to do. I want to empathize with people.” Because I relate so strongly with the plight of wanting to be understood, I wanted to do that for somebody else. And that journey of and desire and motivation of wanting to understand somebody is what motivates me to this day. It’s so personal and special to me that I’m in this industry, doing this right now because I really feel that God understands me. I really feel that he made me, and he knows my situation … The way he works is so personal. I can’t ignore it, and I can’t not be grateful. I’m just so overwhelmed when I really stop and think about it.
For this movie, what would you say is at the core of it or the driving force within it?
The movie is a hypermodern thriller told via the technology devices we use on an everyday basis. So even though it’s so forward in the way that it approaches storytelling, and it’s innovative, it’s also really intuitive because it’s just a story about a girl gone missing. I tell my friends it’s like “Taken,” but I’m the girl who goes missing, and it takes place on screen … It doesn’t sound like that crazy of a story, but it’s the elements of the story that people do connect with, and then it’s the way that it’s told with all these devices that really brings people to just fall in love with the way of storytelling. It means something personal to me to be a part of this film because I get to be a part of an Asian American family, and growing up I really didn’t see that … except maybe “Joy Luck Club,” but the fact that I get to be in a movie where “Hey, this story of a girl gone missing could’ve happened to any family, and they just happened to be Asian” … was really cool and healing for me … Of course, I don’t wish the story of anyone going missing to anyone, but just that the story could be told, and it’s compelling, and it’s relatable. The relationship that my character had with her family, growing up in a loving home and having that being depicted was healing for me.
You’re getting at how it could happen to any family, and the family just happened to be of Asian descent. How was that significant for you?
Yeah, and it’s because ethnicity wasn’t necessarily at the forefront; it was kind of refreshing. Because we, as the Asian family, didn’t have to justify why we were there. The filmmaker didn’t have to justify why they were placing Asians in this movie.To be a part of that movement and that conversation is beyond myself, and I get to be a part of it. I get to play a piece and also learn from people in the industry who’ve been at it for a long time and have been teaching me … I’m just so grateful.
How would you view your identity?
For me as a Christian, I solidified my understanding of who I am at Biola. My identity is not my ethnicity. It’s a piece of my identity, but, as Christians, our identity is in Christ. We are in God’s family, in God’s Kingdom; we’re created by Him, in His image. That’s who I am, and that’s who I try to bring to the table in every audition, every role … And even though I transitioned from science to acting, I realized it doesn’t really matter what your profession is, you can shine God’s light as a person every single day; we bear his image. And so we have the opportunity to testify of who God is on a daily basis, just by living, having integrity and being salt and light in this world. I guess my identity is so rooted in that understanding and that belief that I represent God, that I try to bring that to my workplace and to my daily life.
Are there any stories you feel like this movie is seeking to tell or will tell people or are its characters identifiable with those who will see this movie?
It just makes you reflective about how we use our social media and how we portray ourselves. And what I like to tell people, and what I’ve said in other interviews, is social media is curated, how we post. It’s our selections of how we portray ourselves, right? And then on the receiving end, people perceive you based on what you post and curate, so I think it’s just an important reminder that I like to share with people—that there’s so much to be said about social media. I think the point of this movie is that we use it; we use technology. Margot is a normal teenager. She grew up in a loving family, and a tragic thing happens to her, and she uses technology to continue engaging her friends. Technology is a tool that we use to communicate and engage the people we know, as an extension of our reality … And of course, even though it’s a useful tool, it can also be used negatively too, and you’ll see that in the movie. People get taken advantage of online, and people get stalked … I think everything the movie has to say is really in its subtlety because it’s not trying to say anything. It’s about how you personally, each viewer, connects to the movie.
Biola’s School of Cinema and Media Arts hosted a special screening of Searching Monday, Nov. 5 at 7 p.m. followed by a Q-and-A with Michelle La. Watch a forthcoming interview with La on The Biola Hour.
This interview has been edited for clarity and condensed.
Written by Monica Kochan, iBiola reporter. For more information, please contact Jenna Loumagne, Manager of Media Relations, at firstname.lastname@example.org or via phone at (562) 777-4061.
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